A congressional committee report released Tuesday blames the listeria outbreak that killed 30 people last year on a cantaloupe farming operation in Colorado and a food safety processing and auditing system rife with problems.
The bipartisan report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee outlined a number of serious breakdowns at Jensen Farms that led to what it called “the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in over 25 years.” But the report focused on what committee members said was a clear lack of knowledge about food safety standards by Jensen owners and changes made to the processing system that should have raised red flags about possible contamination issues.
“The investigation conclusively linked the outbreak to cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms, including 13 positive samples of Listeria monocytogenes obtained from processing equipment and cantaloupes in a Jensen Farms packing facility,” the committee report stated. “FDA (Food and Drug Administration) officials cited several deficiencies in Jensen Farms’ facility, which reflected a general lack of awareness of food safety principles and may have contributed to the outbreak.”
More specifically, the lawmakers concluded that the outbreak, linked to 30 deaths and one miscarriage nationwide, was probably the direct result of a Jensen Farms “decision to use a packing and washing technique involving non-chlorinated water” in the processing of cantaloupes.
In addition to blaming Jensen Farms, the committee specifically cited several third-party food safety auditing and inspecting firms that maintained a cozy, financial relationship with the farming operation and gave it high passing grades despite obvious problems. The report also noted that the firms failed to notify the FDA or state health authorities of problems at Jensen, and that one firm, Bio Food Safety, allegedly recommended the changes in how the melons were washed and packed.
In a letter sent Tuesday to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the Democratic members of the committee urged the agency to take steps to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
“Like it or not, our food safety system relies heavily on third-party auditors to identify dangerous practices and prevent contaminated foods from reaching the market,” the lawmakers wrote to Hamburg. “We believe reforms in third-party audits are essential. We call on you to address the problems identified in this investigation in regulation and guidance.”